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St. John’s Hospital in Far Roockaway pressed by New York state to reduce services

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The New York State Department of Health is pressing St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, in Far Rockaway, to implement a plan that would convert the 257-bed facility to a “micro-hospital,” according to people who are aware of the situation.

Pressure to make such a drastic change in operations comes after the Health Department forced St. John’s to make wide-ranging cuts to significantly reduce the amount of money the state would allot to the hospital, the only one on the Rockaway Peninsula, which also serves the Five Towns.

St. John’s is considered a “safety net” hospital, because a majority of its patients are covered by Medicare or Medicaid. According to hospital statistics, 90 percent of its patients have government insurance, and some have no insurance.

The Health Department offered St. John’s three options: a reduced-capacity model with 91 medical/surgery beds and no labor/delivery services or pediatrics; a micro-hospital with 15 medical/surgery beds and 43 beds for behavioral health patients — the option the Health Department is pushing for, according to hospital officials; or a “healthplex,” or behavioral health outpatient facility, with 30 beds and further reduced services. Any one of the options would cut 1,000 jobs from the hospital’s current workforce of roughly 1,700.

“We are deeply saddened and concerned by the New York State Department of Health’s push to significantly cut health care services and eliminate over 1,000 jobs,” the Right Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, said in a statement. “The Department of Health is abandoning any consideration of the documented community health needs of this overwhelming underserved population.”

The Queens Zip code 11691, which falls within the hospital’s area of care, has the second-highest Covid-19 death toll in New York City, according to the City Department of Health.

"Reports that the state Department of Health is planning to dramatically cut health care services in one of the hardest hit areas of New York City are deeply disturbing," Veronica Turner-Biggs, 1199SEIU senior executive vice president for the Downstate Health System said in a statement sent to the Herald on March 3. "1199SEIU members at St. John's Episcopal in Far Rockaway have dedicated themselves selflessly throughout the pandemic to meet the many needs of the peninsula's residents and our union has fought to make sure that local healthcare services are preserved and expanded. This proposal must be immediately withdrawn and the State Department of Health must meaningfully engage with stakeholders to create a path forward."

According to St. John’s records, the state Department of Health contacted the hospital about conducting a financial sustainability assessment in 2018, with the goal of reducing state funding for the facility.

A year later, the department hired ToneyKorf Partners, a consulting firm, to analyze the hospital’s finances. As a result, St. John’s instituted a $24 million cost savings plan that included laying off management staff early last year, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

During ToneyKorf’s analysis, hospital officials told the Health Department that more cuts in services and staff could not be made, and that a community-health-needs assessment should be conducted to bolster the state’s knowledge of the health care needs of the communities St. John’s serves. A consulting firm did the assessment, and concluded that those communities needed more access to health care, not less.

“Throughout the years, St. John’s Episcopal Hospital has been committed to working with the New York State Department of Health to ensure the availability of health care services to the residents of the Rockaways and surrounding communities,” Provenzano stated. “It was in that spirit that we put our full effort into working with the Department of Health to provide our communities with the health care services that are clearly necessary.”

Hospital officials said that the Health Department mandated that the facility use ToneyKorf’s services, and gave the firm more time and more money.

On April 29, 2020, ToneyKorf released the results of an analytical forecast of the impact of the pandemic on community and urban safety-net hospitals. “The forecast indicates that only immediate and aggressive actions, coupled with additional external funding, can prevent a complete financial crisis for many health care organizations,” a news release stated.

In response to the Herald’s questions concerning the options offered St. John’s, Health Department spokeswoman Erin Silk stated in an email that the state’s operating budget for the hospital has increased by 50 percent since 2019 and is now $60 million per year.

Silk added that the state’s funding for all safety-net hospitals has roughly doubled since 2019, and is anticipated to be more than $1 billion in the next fiscal year.

“The Department of Health has been working with the management of St. John’s Episcopal for several years in an effort to achieve improved health outcomes and access in the Far Rockaways,” Silk said. “In 2019, St. John’s Episcopal entered into an agreement with Mount Sinai South Nassau to jointly explore how they could achieve this objective. As part of that process, Mount Sinai selected and hired a healthcare advisory firm called ToneyKorf Partners to help develop strategic options. The department looks forward to working with the leadership of St. John’s Episcopal in reviewing these options, among others, and is continuing to provide substantial operating support to St. John’s Episcopal.”

“We ask Governor Cuomo to take immediate action to stop his health department from going through with any of the plans of decreasing funding and health care services,” Provenzano said.

Have an opinion on St. John’s Episcopal Hospital reducing services? Send a letter to jbessen@liherald.com.

Story reflects addition of union statement  on March 3.